Mary Ann's Reviews > Buddha

Buddha by Karen Armstrong
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's review
Mar 21, 2010

really liked it
Read in March, 2010

Just finished last night. I'm a fairly new practitioner of Zen, and when I saw this at BookPeople, I snatched it up. I had read Karen Armstrong's A History of God, which set the western faiths Judaism, Christianity, and Islam into historical context and also explains what it takes to make a set of beliefs and practices into a religion.

I had jumped right into Zen by taking a class on the Diamond Sutra. I found myself wanting to know more about the Buddha's life. This book was satisfying. I imagine that over time, I will read additional biographies of the Buddha, but this was a good start.

The Buddha lived during a time that historians call "the Axial Age". This period extended from about 800 to 200 BCE. The luminaries of the age were the great Hebrew prophets, Confucius and Lao Tzu, Zoroaster, Socrates and Plato, and of course, the Buddha. The common denominator in these various cultures' experience in the Axial Age is a quest for enlightenment, a sense of fresh possibilities that led people to break with old traditions. People turned inward to understand themselves and the meaning of life, building on a yearning for peace and wholeness in a world that was transitioning to cities, market economies, and alienation.

So that sets the stage. The other thing I learned is that the Buddha was a yogi. When he left his home at age 29 and joined a band of ascetics, they practiced yoga. This area south of Nepal in the Ganges plain was laden with crowds of wandering bhikkhus, who at that time in history, rather than being scorned as slackers, were honored as heroic pioneers, rebels from the old Vedic faith, now pursuing a radical freedom. They were completely mobile and received food and alms and generosity from the populace; to keep the peace, the authorities required them to make a contribution, which they did by seeking a philosophy that could improve the spiritual health of the country. Nice system, huh?

Armstrong doesn't clearly explain what kind of yoga the Buddha encountered; most certainly it was not what we call yoga in the west nowadays. Yoga is ancient--Wikipedia says there are Indian pictograms of people in asanas as far back as 9000 BCE. Patanjali's Yoga Sutras were written somewhere between 500 and 100 BCE, which overlaps with the Buddha's lifetime.

It seems very possible to me, then, that the among the crowds of bhikkhus, the wandering monks whom Buddha joined, and who later joined his sangha, were those responsible for refining yoga into the eight limbs described by Patanjali, which include morality, asanas, pranayama, and meditative techniques. The Buddha may have influenced them.

The bhikkhus that Siddhartha Gautama first fell in with after leaving home practiced an ascetic version of yoga. He was very adept at it. His enlightenment was called "the middle way" because it steered a path between asceticism (which had nearly ruined his health) and indulgence in sensuality, egotism, and greed. Yet his bhikkhu followers were also adept at yogic practices, to the point that the Buddha could speak his truths and path, and they became enlightened on the spot, experiencing his teaching "directly" as though they had always known it. It seems clear that practicing yoga prepared one for enlightenment.

I quite enjoyed this book and the way it stimulated my mind and helped me find a bridge between yoga and Buddhism.

One note: Armstrong uses Pali words instead of Sanskrit. Thus, "dhamma" instead of "dharma", "nibbana" instead of "nirvana". I found this distracting, being much more familiar with the Sanskrit. I understand it seems closer to the (unknown) language that the Buddha spoke, since the first Buddhist texts were transmitted orally in Pali and later were preserved in writing.
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